It takes a network to fight a network: in this case, a network of pro-Israel hackers to battle the network of boycotters that Israel has to contend with online and in the real world.
Thus was born the idea for “Firewall,” described as the first Israel Legitimacy Hackathon, a three-day contest held in Tel Aviv this week to produce digital tools to fight the delegitimization campaign being waged against the State of Israel’s right to exist.
And the winner was version 2.0 of the Virtual War Room (VWR), a site allowing activists from around the world to defend Israel in real time, online.
For their work, the students at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya behind the war room took home a $5,000 prize. The team automated a project they began during Israel’s summer war against Hamas-led fighters in Gaza that helped counter the incessant chatter against Israel on news and opinion sites around the world.
“Israel is being faced with a new type of challenge,” noted Tel Aviv’s Reut Institute, which organized the event. “Delegitimizers are using technological tools, like social media, to more effectively organize and communicate their message. Those who support Israel’s right to exist need an innovative set of tools that leverages our technological strengths and compensates for our numerical disadvantage. This hackathon aims to create these technological tools.”
Firewall saw dozens of teams gathered for 72 hours of hacking and web organizing – with the IDC students coming in first for an advanced and enhanced model of the project they first tried over the summer. The IDC’s Virtual War Room, which operated during Operation Protective Edge, saw hundreds of students monitor web sites in 34 languages and 61 countries for anti-Israel comments and propaganda. The students countered the comments and links about the IDF’s “evil” activities in Gaza with Israel’s side of the story.
For the hackathon, the IDC students turned what had been a manual effort – with hundreds of people checking out web sites, reading the comments, and responding – into a web platform that would automatically seek out comments of interest, and allow pro-Israel activists to quickly respond appropriately using prepared materials and pinpointed responses on a platform that could be managed by just a small group.
This week’s event was open to college-age students, and drew participants from Israel, the United States, Canada, Argentina, South America, Sweden, and Great Britain. In addition, a high-school team from the central Israel community of Maccabim-Reut participated after getting special permission from their school administration. Said Oded Anter, one of the students: “In just a few months we will be joining the IDF, and our minds are focused on protecting and defending the State of Israel. Working on apps like these is much more interesting than developing pointless games or coming up with ideas for new start-ups.”
The Reut Institute is a policy group concerned with helping to shape the future of Israeli society. Established in 2004, Reut has worked closely with every Israeli government, producing studies and position papers on everything from security to the high price of consumer goods to the role of the diaspora in modern Jewish life. The group also runs numerous programs to encourage women, Arabs, and the disenfranchised to share the bounty of Israeli society, as part of its “Israel 15” vision – referring to efforts to make Israel among the top 15 most prosperous, equitable, and livable societies in the world.
As a result, the Institute has sponsored cutting-edge events and programs, such as XLN Labs, Israel’s first open-source 3D printer lab. Last summer, Reut and XLN sponsored a 3D printer hackathon to produce devices and products to make life easier for the disabled.
The Firewall hackathon is right in line with Reut’s work, said Director Gidi Grinstein. “Reut is all about Tikkun Olam, making the world a better place. We are Israel’s leading social innovation organization that focuses on strategic research and development for Israel. Our work focuses on identifying relevancy gaps between the work of the decision makers and the reality on the ground in the fields of social–economic development, the Jewish world, Israel’s national security, and this event, we believe, will contribute greatly to those goals.”